Rolling Stone Publisher Sells Majority Stake to Penske, Owner of Variety

Started in 1967 from a loft in San Francisco, Rolling Stone gave a voice to the baby boomer generation and redefined music as an art form.

Penske Media Corporation has acquired a controlling stake in Wenner Media, the publisher of the famed Rolling Stone magazine, the companies announced on Wednesday.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the investment values Wenner Media at roughly $100 million, according to a person familiar with the deal. BandLab Technologies, a Singapore-based music technology company, will retain a 49-percent stake in Rolling Stone that it acquired last year.

Jann S. Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone, will stay on at Wenner Media as its editorial director. His son, Gus Wenner, will remain president and chief operating officer and will also join the advisory board of Penske Media, whose properties include Variety, Deadline and WWD. The companies said Wenner Media would retain “majority control and editorial oversight” of Rolling Stone.

“I am so proud of our accomplishments over the past 50 years and know Penske Media is the ideal match for us to thrive in today’s media landscape,” Jann Wenner said in a statement.

The Wenners will still be involved with Rolling Stone, but the deal on Wednesday represents an end of sorts. It was the elder Mr. Wenner, after all, who started the magazine in 1967 from a loft in San Francisco.

Last year, Gus Wenner, 27, orchestrated the deal with BandLab, which invested $40 million in exchange for its share in the magazine. In quick order, Gus Wenner also sold Wenner’s other two titles, Us Weekly and Men’s Journal, to American Media, the magazine publisher led by David J. Pecker.

“We believe that Penske Media is uniquely qualified to partner with the Wenners to ensure the brand continues to ascend for decades across multiple media platforms,” Jay Penske, the chairman and chief executive of Penske Media, said in a statement.

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Credit...Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Variety

Since its beginning, Rolling Stone gave a voice to the baby boomer generation and redefined music as a cultural force. With his editorial judgment, Mr. Wenner became a fierce arbiter of what was cool.

Rolling Stone’s covers minted stars. In its pages, Mr. Wenner cultivated literary icons, including Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, whose lengthy articles chronicled an often chaotic and intoxicating world. It was at Rolling Stone where the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz got her start.

With the magazine, Mr. Wenner seized the freewheeling culture of the 1960s and 1970s and spun it into a publication that some of the baby boomer ilk came to call “The Bible.” It covered music, but also pop culture, entertainment and politics.

Jann Wenner started other magazines, including Outside in 1977 and Family Life in 1993. His name, however, was synonymous with Rolling Stone.

Mr. Wenner rocketed into the celebrity world that had long enchanted him. He partied with rock stars and toured the world on his private jet. In the mid-1990s, an affair Mr. Wenner was having with a young male fashion designer catapulted him into the gossip pages alongside some of his subjects.

Still, Mr. Wenner’s critics, especially in recent years, accused him of publishing a staid magazine that failed to recognize emerging artists and musical styles. Advertisers who once flocked to Rolling Stone’s pages began turning away. More recently, Mr. Wenner has suffered a heart attack and a broken hip that left him walking with a cane. At a swanky party in October for an HBO documentary about Rolling Stone — while guests nibbled on sushi and a DJ played classic rock — Mr. Wenner ambled over to his table at the beginning of the night and greeted guests from his seat.

And if the magazine industry has not been kind over the last decade, it has been particularly brutal for small publishers. Wenner Media — and Rolling Stone — has done itself no favors: A botched article in late 2014 about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia damaged the magazine’s reputation at the same time it was trying to combat steepening declines in print advertising and circulation.

When Wenner Media said in September that it was exploring a sale of its remaining 51 percent stake in Rolling Stone, both Gus and Jann Wenner said they expected a range of interested parties. Gus Wenner had been particularly optimistic that a technology company would buy the magazine.

Penske Media, which was founded in 2003 and has headquarters in Los Angeles and New York, the investment in Wenner Media actually underscores how perilous the magazine industry has become. Rolling Stone used to be worth much more; Mr. Wenner once boasted he had turned down a $500 million offer for the magazine. In a release announcing the deal, Penske Media and Wenner Media cited Penske’s expertise in digital media and live events as attributes that would benefit Rolling Stone.

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